After 6 months of wondering since a trip to Southend on February 18th, Crewe fans finally experienced once more that empty, helpless frustration that floods through the system after a defeat.
20 matches without loss and Notts County, in the opening game of the two clubs’ respective League One journeys, devoured such a stat with clinical ruthlessness that this inexperienced side will have to adapt themselves to with haste if they are to compete in the third tier.
The learning process now becomes steadfast for Steve Davis and his young side, they were exposed here to the unforgiving side of the league through Keith Curle’s street-wise unit which displayed physicality and measured football in equal measure. Crewe provided the vaguest of answers, one that nearly earned them a point towards the end of a scrappy affair, but upon the final whistle there was an over-riding feeling that a point would have been harsh on the visitors who were not forced to work overly-hard to edge the Railwaymen out.
There will be the inevitable faith in Davis that the failings on show here will be sorted immediately and put into action for the trip to Scunthorpe on Tuesday, for his other record of not losing consecutive matches during his nine month spell in charge still remains intact for now. Perhaps he was the victim of his own success here in that such a convincing thrashing of Hartlepool in the League Cup last weekend resulted in no option but to persist with the same team. Yet that win was not without concern and to lay the same weaknesses at the mercy of a side with the nous and experience of Notts County, it had to be argued, was rather reckless.
For Curle had done his homework and was evidently familiar with the Crewe penchant for attempting to play quick, incisive passing football through the middle. The Magpies’ midfield pressed hard, cut off the short passing streams Crewe usually indulge themselves in, and aside from a few half chances such as Max Clayton’s speculative lob over Bartosz Bialkowski, there was nothing to really report from the home side in a first half that was noted by Francois Zoko’s back-post finish after a right-wing cross. Too many free headers was a negative from the Hartlepool match, yet it was in effect here, Zoko drifted behind the centre-halves and diverted the ball past Alan Martin when completely free. The timing, just before the interval, took any impetus out of what had been a brave first half display from Crewe in the face of some tough tackling that threatened to deviate the game from out of the referee’s control, but it was in microcosm, the difference between the two sides; County seized on the opportunities they grafted out, Crewe did not.
Crewe’s man of the match Mathias Pogba had Crewe’s other notable first half chance, drifting in from the left to take a long ball down in a central area and his turn and shot was well parried by Bialkowski, yet this should have been the plan B that Crewe were forced into by County’s intense pressing that allowed neither Ashley Westwood or Abdul Osman sufficient time on the ball to supply the forwards with cutting through balls. Too often they were going long to a duo of short forwards in Ajay Leitch-Smith and Clayton who were being suffocated by County’s physical centre-halves. Meanwhile, Pogba’s brute force was stuck out on the periphery for too long and when he was positioned centrally with Clayton spared the physical bruising by moving to the left, it was far too late, despite a neatly taken header from a corner that ultimately proved to be a consolation.
It was Yohann Arquin who netted Notts County’s second goal, originating again from Crewe’s left side as a result of Gregor Robertson failing to cut the crossing opportunity off, confusion reigned and Arquin was allowed to stroke the ball home after the ball had broken loose. That, compounded with Arquin’s moment of madness in which he kicked out at Ashley Westwood to earn a red-card, drew a stirring response from Crewe, but it came with the introduction of Luke Murphy for the otherwise flat Abdul Osman and Pogba’s move into the centre, two logical decisions that worryingly came when the deficit was unlikely to be overturned. Westwood had a late shot cleared off the line as Gresty Road collectively held its breath, but an equaliser would have been fortunate from a home side point of view, and harsh on County who had worked hard enough to warrant the three points to be filed under the drawer entitled “deserved”.
Keith Curle punched the air and left to begin a campaign that will probably see them challenge the upper echelons of the division, whilst for Steve Davis it is back to the chalkboard for Tuesday night’s trip to Scunthorpe. The problems were evident and it shall be nothing for the reactionary nature of Davis to fix, but as with all opening day defeats, the next game cannot come quick enough to present the chance to blow it out of the system. If some were still in disbelief over last season’s wonderful climax that ensured League One status, nobody will be in any confusion now of where the club reside. This is League One and Crewe found that out on Saturday; now it is time to take the lessons and improve, on to Glanford Park.
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